BOOK REVIEW / Smug, wet, pink orthodoxy: 'Fuzzy Monsters: Fear and Loathing at the BBC' Chris Borrie and Steve Clarke: Heinemann, 16.99 pounds

IN JANUARY 1985 the Times, then recently acquired by Rupert Murdoch, published five editorials lambasting the BBC. In the past such an attack would have been unthinkable. When Henry Fairlie invented the concept of the Establishment, what he had in mind was a group of like- minded opinion-formers such as the people who ran the Times and the BBC. Now, in the Eighties, the bitter political divisions in British society were mirrored and focused in irreconcilable disagreement over the BBC.

Once, the Corporation had lived comfortably within its income. In recent years, with the rapid inflation of broadcasting costs, it had got in the habit of going to Parliament for an increase in the licence fee. This was a dangerous position to be in. The BBC had long been unpopular with politicians of both parties. And now, with Margaret Thatcher in Number Ten, a new, almost hysterical, hostility to the BBC was in fashion.

At Lady Thatcher's side was Lord Tebbit, who believed the BBC was the home of an 'insufferable, smug, sanctimonious, naive, guilt-ridden, wet, pink orthodoxy', and once told the head of BBC drama, 'I know you're lying because you work for the BBC'.

Thatcher's views were not very different. She was close to Rupert Murdoch, who disapproved of the 'upmarket costume soap operas which the British system produces, in which strangulated English accents dominate dramas which are played out in rigid, class-structured settings' - in other words, Middlemarch. Most of the Tory Establishment agreed with Paul Johnson, who wrote that the BBC 'lies for the left' and 'rapes for the revolution'.

With all the power and finance in the hands of the politicians, it would not have been surprising if the BBC had simply been marked down for immediate execution. It might have been less painful if the decision had been taken a decade ago to allow the BBC to be financed by advertising.

Instead, the BBC was handed over to the tender mercies of one of the oddest couples ever to be given authority over so substantial a share of a nation's cultural destiny.

The Chairman was Marmaduke Hussey, an engaging and gentlemanly figure, best known for having shut down the Times in a miscalculated attempt to bluff the unions there. His partner, the Tories' chosen Director- General, was John Birt, who was known for being a lifelong partisan of the Labour Party and for missing no opportunity to express his contempt for people like Hussey.

Chris Horrie and Steve Clarke take the story on from the arrival of this incongruous duo. They are, I think, badly served by their title. It was Michael Checkland, Birt's predecessor, who denounced Hussey and the BBC's governors as the sort of people who thought FM stood for 'fuzzy monsters'. It was not a very good joke even then, and as a title it does not do justice to the seriousness of the subject or to the authors' diligence and insight.

Both are journalists, Horrie best known for a sprightly expose of the Sun newspaper, and Clarke deputy editor of Broadcast magazine. Their book is highly readable, full of the kind of spicy anecdote you will get if you interview several dozen angry hacks, and there are certainly a lot of BBC journalists who are very, very angry. If I were running the BBC, for example, I should be concerned that two such loyal and gifted journalists as Charles Wheeler and Mark Tully were as alienated from management as they appear to be.

I particularly enjoyed the picture of BBC producers being obliged to cut out paper frogs and sell them to one another as part of the ' 'huggy feely' personal therapy' approach to making them think entrepreneurially.

The authors are ultimately baffled by the strange contradictions of Birt's character. The exact nature of Birtism, they say, 'boils down to old-fashioned elitism, tinged with political cowardice, and implies that the BBC will retreat from the mass market'. Others, they say, explain Birtism as 'an endlessly flexible doctrine that amounts to whatever will further the career of John Birt'.

It is true that it is hard to reconcile Birt's elitist thesis about television journalism with the hostility he seems to feel towards those most likely to deliver the quality he claims to want. It is clear, too, that as fast as the BBC sheds journalists, producers and craftsmen, it acquires new managerial employees whose strength is the ability to count beans.

John Birt is a man of redoubtable energy and impressive intellect. He is not perhaps over-endowed with an instinctive understanding of people. His idea of becoming the BBC's Director-General without joining its staff was less than inspired. But even if he were as wise as the serpent and as gentle as the dove, the job he is doing may well be too heavy for him.

Once upon a time we lived in a Britain that was deferential, but where we believed in ourselves and rather liked one another. In such a world, it was possible to preside over a cultural monopoly as important to our society as the BBC was then, and achieve at least a working consensus. Now we are overwhelmed by cultural panic. Half of those who form our opinions actually hate the people who used to run the BBC, and believe that the BBC should be managed like an American corporation to produce American-style TV. The other half are ready to die in the last ditch to stop that happening.

The viewers, however, are increasingly indifferent. It may be that the BBC we used to enjoy - a BBC which tried to set world standards and brave the wrath of politicians - was simply too good for us. Perhaps that is what John Birt understands.

Certainly he seems to be confused about what he is trying to do: save money or to save the BBC? To improve the quality of its journalism or to punish those who have set too high a standard? Or just to keep the monster from running away with him? His slogan was the mission to explain. The irony is that, if he were a little bit better at explaining himself, he might be received with less fear and loathing, and more sympathy.

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy